Josh on the Jets: 2023-24 outlook

Storylines and players to keep an eye on this season

The highs of being a Winnipeg Jets fan can be very high — the city-wide euphoria when the team returned, the 2018 Western Conference Final run and, of course, the joyous delirium of whiteout parties.

However, the lows are likewise very low. Take last April, for instance, when head coach Rick Bowness lambasted his team fresh off an uninspired game five performance in which the Jets lost their first-round playoff series to the Vegas Golden Knights. In his post-game press-conference, Bowness said he was “disappointed and disgusted” because the team had “no push back.” But time heals all wounds and the next season is here, full of promise, hope and change, so here’s a few things to keep an eye on.

An offseason to remember

When the Winnipeg Jets went into the summer of 2023 with a gale of rumors, questions and doubts gusting from the prematurely deserted Canada Life Centre, the team’s future seemed bleak.

Many wondered what the team was going to do with aging former-captain and franchise points leader Blake Wheeler. Popular sentiment around the club was that it was time for number 26 to move on. He had given his heart to the organization, but he just could not compete at the level the Jets needed him to anymore. Consequently, after failing to find a trade partner, the team bought out his contract and he signed a new deal with the New York Rangers.

Moreover, Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was unwilling to sign long-term in Winnipeg, was the next domino to fall. Many thought the French Canadian was seeking a return to the province of his hometown, Quebec, and sign with the Montreal Canadiens. However, in a sign and trade deal, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sent Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings in return for three solid players and a second-round draft pick, which was heralded by many as a brilliant move.

Furthermore, this summer the Jets — who were captain-less during the 2022-23 season after freshly hired Bowness stripped Blake Wheeler of the C — named fan-favourite, heart and soul player Adam Lowry the third captain in the team’s history.

The most significant transaction of the summer, however, was an internal one. Most pundits thought top-line centre Mark Scheifele and Vezina-calibre goaltender Connor Hellebuyck — both of whose contracts were expiring at the end of the 2023-24 season — were going to be traded alongside Dubois.

The Jets obviously had other plans. Not two days before the team’s opening game, the pair were re-signed to identical seven-year deals — a bold move that shows fans the team still wants to win.

Attendance concerns

The move to re-sign Scheifele and Hellebuyck did not come out of a vacuum, however. Through the first three home games of the year, the club has been dealing with noticeable attendance concerns.

The purpose of this section in the paper is not to diagnose the potential economic or social factors behind the drop off in in-person fan support, but it is a reality that can be observed clearly at the once packed rink. Some of the players are even noticing it.

On a positive note, students at the University of Manitoba can access cheaper tickets by texting “STUDENT” to +1-888-606-5378, should they wish to take a break from studying and go to a game.

Key players

Ultimately, if all else crumbles, Hellebuyck needs to be elite for the Jets to succeed. Even if things go well, he still needs to be. And the Vezina-winning goalie has been consistently terrific. Although, to start this season, he’s been a bit wobbly, maintaining a pedestrian .878 save percentage, which will need to improve.

Moreover, a breakout year for speedster Nikolaj Ehlers plus a spell of good health would do wonders for this club. Over the last three seasons, Ehlers has been scoring .90 points per game. The trouble is, he has not played a full year without injury since 2017-18.

Another challenge is how the Jets can make up for the absence of Dubois and Wheeler. One hopes it would come from the trio of players acquired from the Kings — Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iaffalo and Rasmus Kupari, who combined for 40 goals in 2022-23. However, the recent MCL injury to Vilardi, who already has an inauspicious injury history, muddies those hopes significantly.

Final projection

Nonetheless, according to the predictions from The Athletic, the Jets had a 70 per cent chance of making the playoffs at the beginning of the season. However, after going 2-3 in their first five games, the team’s chances have dropped to 66 per cent.

Nevertheless, on paper, the Jets should make the playoffs, with the clinching of a wildcard spot the most likely scenario. But a Stanley Cup? Well, that seems like a pipedream for the moment.